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The issue is journalism, not newspapers

It was hard concentrating on writing my Sunday column today at The Register-Guard. That’s because workers were dismantling cubicles and desks to rearrange the second floor. The newspaper is leasing out a good portion of its downstairs space; to do so, a couple of departments will join us up on the second level.

It feels a little you’re on the Titantic and someone has discovered an air pocket of hope up top. Not exactly a permanent fix, but, for the moment, something that will keep you alive longer.

Hard times, of course, aren’t unique to newspapers; like sailboats battening down hatches for a storm, plenty of other businesses are doing similar things to stay afloat. It’s a smart move.

That said, it’s a strange time to be a journalist. And a time that forces us to ask:

Does the world really need newspapers?

Not necessarily. What we do need is journalism, regardless of what form it comes in.

Whether it comes in hard-copy form or electronic form; whether you call it a newspaper or something else; whether you get it weekly, daily or minute by minute, we need information to help us, as citizens, make informed decisions.

We need to know what’s going on in City Hall, Salem and Washington, D.C. What countries are waging war against each other. Or against us. Locally, who was born and who died? Who’s going to jail, who’s been set free? What’s happening in the schools? How are our tax dollars are being spent? Who’s running for office and do they have a clue?

Our freedom as a country — and connectedness as communities — depends on it.

I hear it all the time: “Oh, we can just get our news on the Internet.” The same person who believes that’s where news comes from would also believe supermarkets are where orange juice or tomatoes or apples originate.

No, just like a farmer provides the food for those supermarket shelves, so do reporters — most often newspaper reporters — go out and ask questions. Dig up facts. Observe something. File a Freedom of Information Act. Bring back the info and hammer it into a story.

A story that, in many cases, is then picked up and whirled around the Internet.

Don’t get me wrong. There are creditable online reporters. And it’ healthy that the Internet is providing more people an opportunity to have their voices heard. But the idea that we can leave journalism up to anyone who knows how to Tweet or Text ignores the deeper issues: What kind of journalistic training has that person had? Are they accountable to anyone? What incentive, if any, do they have to be fair, impartial and complete? And, finally, who’s going to pay them. Because the reality is journalism costs money.

No, newspapers don’t always succeed in being fair, impartial and complete. But I’d rather depend on organizations that at least aspire to such ideals than to the whims of this blogger or that. Organizations that hold their employees accountable to certain standards. If I, as a newspaper columnist, continually fail to be fair, accurate and complete, it’s simple: I lose my job. But there’s no such accountability in the free-for-all world of do-your-own-thing journalism.

All of which leads us to the $64,000 question: If newspaper are to remain part of the journalistic solution, as I suggest they should, how can they stay afloat financially?

Stay tuned. Meanwhile, while we tighten up the ship, I’m happy to report that we’re still floating. And plan to be for quite some time.

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